The reality of being in politics is that there are often things you do that you don’t really want to do because you’re constantly thinking about reelection, so I have been able to pare down my calendar simply because there are things that I don’t wish to do. But I would imagine any mayor would experience that when you know you’re leaving office. But in terms of decision-making I would say no, because I have always tried to make decisions not based on what would be popular but what would be the right decision that would allow me to sleep at night. That hasn’t changed at all.
One of the reasons you cited for announcing when you did was to give possible community candidates enough time to prepare a run against more well-funded candidates. By doing so, were you suggesting something is fundamentally broken in the creation of new leadership in public service?
Elections are popularity contests, and the more money you have to make yourself more popular often gives you an advantage. People are voting on who they think they like the most and not always on substance. And depending on how much money you have, you can make yourself very popular, or you can take the opportunity to make people aware of who you are and what you stand for. But it takes an enormous amount of money, and in that regard the system has been broken for a very long time. It’s not the common person’s game anymore. It’s very difficult for a regular person without a financial network to run and be successful.
Did the social justice movement that developed in the last year develop a new group of leaders prepared to run, or is the environment too sullied in the midst of partisanship and election issues?
I think there are many people who now have an interest in governance and who now understand how your government impacts your day-to-day life, and that’s good because you have more people interested in taking part in democracy. The challenge is, a lot of people only understand a portion of what it takes to govern. When you think about a city like Atlanta, you’ve got close to 500,000 residents, another 500,000 people who come in by day, 9,000 employees, a $2 billion operation. And what sometimes concerns me is that while you are happy to see people interested in leading, I don’t think people understand the full picture, that many of our social issues are a piece of a bigger puzzle of issues that you have to deal with when you’re dealing with an entity of this size and this complexity.
We saw an increase in the number of mayors running for president in this last cycle, and at least got the sense that more voters are open to the notion of a mayor’s unique experience being a desirable qualification for president. What is it that mayors know about people and policy that maybe others don’t know?
Mayors are dealing with the “kitchen table” issues and don’t have the luxury of being removed. You are on the ground, you are dealing with people face to face. Often for leaders in Washington, or even at the statewide level, the issues seem far off, and you can’t touch and feel them the way you can as a mayor, from trash being picked up to 911-response call time, to “my car was broken into” — those are the things a mayor deals with every day on top of the complexity of running a multibillion-dollar organization. I think that’s why you saw so many mayors entering the race, and there were many others who contemplated entering and, for whatever reason, decided not to.
So taking that a step further, based on what you see every day, what issues should we all be more concerned about that maybe we don’t take seriously enough?
The most challenging thing I see is our inability to respond to those systemic issues that lead to the bigger issues. For example, this crime spike that we’ve seen after covid. We deal with the aftereffects: “Somebody robbed me on the corner.” ‘Somebody pulled a gun on me after I cut them off in a parking lot.” Our biggest challenge is to have the patience and the discipline to deal with these issues and not just when we are experience a pandemic or a spike in crime, but address them once and for all so we don’t find ourselves in this place again.
Communities of color were harder hit because of systemic issues related to things like access to health care, emotional and mental well-being, inability to resolve conflict, and these long-standing issues that have always simmered beneath the surface that we have not dealt with.
Given the tsunami of issues arising over the last two years, what policies absolutely have to change after what we’ve been through?
I think we, particularly in Georgia, have to look at Medicare expansion; we have to look at access to health care. That’s a huge policy issue that has been elevated over the past year and a half.
And again, we have to look at what policing means in our community. Everybody wants to be safe. People were crying “defund the police,” but if I walk into a meeting of African American seniors, they’re going to ask me why we don’t have more police.
The reality is, everybody wants to have a safe encounter with the police, their kids, grandkids. We have to continue this discussion on 21st-century policing, what it means, how we keep our communities safe, how do we send our officers home safely as well as the people with whom they are interacting. It can’t be lost after this moment has passed, or we’re going to continue to find ourselves here.
A somewhat lighter version of that question: Is there anything that came as a surprise to you that actually worked better in government under covid?
Yes! A lot of our departments are more efficient now. In fact, we have at least one that will never move back into a physical building. We used to have sickouts and people leaving positions, but now that they are home it works better. Obviously, there are some customer-facing departments, where people will come back in once things reopen. But there are others where people will stay remote just because it works better that way.
I just saw a statistic that 25 percent of cities with more than 30,000 people are now run by women. You’ve mentioned a number of times that your understanding of issues comes partly from being a mother in Atlanta. To that point, what is the difference when women lead at this level?
I would like to think — I hope this is not offensive to men — that we feel things more deeply. We’re thinking about things from a very different angle. We’re experiencing things with the heart of a woman — for me that means as a mother, as a wife. Which is not to say that men don’t feel things as deeply as women do, but I think there are certain sensitivities that we bring to the table, just a different perspective.
When you compare notes, are the conversations you have with women mayors different from the ones you have with those who are not?
Well, you know it’s funny — I hope I don’t get in trouble, but with my sister mayors, it may be “I’m sending you well wishes as you deal with the hurricane,” or it may be “Look what I did with my hair today” — the kind of things you do with a girlfriend. We are constantly thinking of one another and lifting one another up.
With the guys it can be just as silly or trivial, but overall, it’s a great sisterhood and brotherhood. We are constantly asking each other questions. “Have you seen this in your city?” Constantly encouraging one another. I can’t compare what it was like before Trump because I wasn’t mayor, but there was a need to stand close to one another because we could not depend on the White House for support.
Does that work across party lines as well?
Yes, it absolutely does. In so many ways [the Trump years] made us lean on each other more. The good thing is, we now have somebody in the White House for support, and we even get calls, proactively, from the White House, asking if they can be helpful. I wouldn’t say we never got a call from the Trump White House. I would just say you couldn’t trust a call from the Trump White House.
Are there any lasting lessons from the still-evolving relationship of government leaders to social media?
Just a reminder that we have to work with our government and not against our government. There are so many challenges facing our country. It doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree, but it just feels different now. People used to take the time to write a letter or get through on the phone.
With social media and emails, whatever people are feeling they throw it at you. Unfortunately, it’s not always solution-oriented, and, quite frankly, it’s usually when people are angry. I would challenge people to reach out when you can be thoughtful.
If there is a pothole that hasn’t been fixed in three months, then that’s useful information. But when it becomes too toxic, people disconnect, and you don’t ever want an elected official to feel like they have to turn it off.
Eric Easter is writer and producer in Washington. This interview has been edited and condensed.